Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

With rising American criticism of the war in Vietnam tied to the insensitivity of the South Vietnamese government to Buddhist protests against government repression, national assembly member Madame Nhu scandalized readers in the United States when she defiantly called the self-immolation of protesting Buddhist monks a “monk barbecue show.” Her words, published in a letter to the editor in The New York Times, contributed to U.S. support for a coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem, Madame Nhu’s brother-in-law.

Summary of Event

Vietnam gained independence from France but was divided into a communist-ruled North Vietnam and a republican South Vietnam in 1954. Since that time the United States supported South Vietnam and its Roman Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem. By early 1963, Diem faced increasing Communism;Vietnamese Communist Party aggression in his country. On May 8, in the South Vietnamese city of Hue, republican forces clashed with Buddhist protesters—six Buddhists and two Catholics were killed. The U.S. government, along with President Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Vietnam[Vietnam] John F. Kennedy, was displeased with Diem’s stubborn decision to blame the communists—who were likely not involved—for the violence, and by Diem’s ensuing lack of reconciliation with Buddhist protesters. U.S. diplomats feared that Diem was unnecessarily adding new enemies and fueling conflict between his country’s Catholic minority and Buddhist majority. [kw]Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists, Madame (Aug. 14, 1963) [kw]Vietnamese Buddhists, Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of (Aug. 14, 1963) [kw]Buddhists, Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Buddhists (Aug. 14, 1963) Ngo Dinh Nhu, Madame Buddhism;in Vietnam[Vietnam] Buddhism;and self-immolation[selfimmolation] Vietnam War Ngo Dinh Nhu, Madame Buddhism;in Vietnam[Vietnam] Buddhism;and self-immolation[selfimmolation] Vietnam War [g]Asia;Aug. 14, 1963: Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists[01190] [g]Vietnam;Aug. 14, 1963: Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists[01190] [c]Publishing and journalism;Aug. 14, 1963: Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists[01190] [c]Politics;Aug. 14, 1963: Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists[01190] [c]International relations;Aug. 14, 1963: Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists[01190] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 14, 1963: Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists[01190] [c]Government;Aug. 14, 1963: Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists[01190] [c]Violence;Aug. 14, 1963: Madame Nhu Derides Self-Immolation of Vietnamese Buddhists[01190] Ngo Dinh Nhu Le Thuy, Ngo Dinh Ngo Dinh Diem Lodge, Henry Cabot, Jr. Halberstam, David

Madame Nhu.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The most outspoken defender of the shaky thesis of a communist-Buddhist link was Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, a national assembly member who was married to President Diem’s brother and senior adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu. As self-styled First Lady of South Vietnam, the beautiful Madame Nhu, fluent in French and with serviceable English, was admired by fellow Vietnamese for speaking with Americans as her equals. Self-confident and blunt, Madame Nhu fascinated, exacerbated, and antagonized U.S. diplomats. She had the same effect on young American reporters such as David Halberstam of New York Times The New York Times. Indeed, Halberstam had developed a visceral hatred of Madame Nhu.

On June 8, Madame Nhu denounced the Buddhist protesters as dupes of the communists, leading Halberstam to call her comment a disastrous escalation of antagonism. A top U.S. diplomat, William Trueheart, complained to President Diem about Madame Nhu. The stage was set for Americans to now consider her the “dragon lady” of South Vietnam, an epithet also misogynistic and stereotypical. On June 11, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who was seventy-three years old, burned himself to death on a busy street in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Americans began to look at Madame Nhu’s hardline approach, shared by her husband, as a severe impediment to the war effort against the communists.

A second Buddhist monk burned himself to death on August 5. Around this time, Madame Nhu’s eldest daughter, seventeen-year-old Ngo Dinh Le Thuy, who was fluent in English, overheard American reporters at a bar in Saigon referring to the immolations as “monk barbecues.” Hearing about this from Le Thuy, Madame Nhu made the catastrophic decision, as she later told her American audiences on October 11 and 12 at Fordham and Columbia Universities, to use this same words as ridicule to stop the monk suicides.

In a letter to the editor of New York Times;and Madame Nhu[Nhu] The New York Times, written August 11 and published August 14, Madame Nhu acknowledged that she had said, “I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show.” She defended her caustic words as necessary to “electroshock” the world so that it would “come better to understand the reality of the situation.” Madame Nhu’s letter had the opposite effect. Americans were infuriated, and The New York Times ran an editorial in the same issue that condemned her as “callous and self-defeating.” Newsweek magazine included the quotation in its August 19 issue, and other American print media picked up on her caustic words, reporting, also, that she had said that the unpatriotic monks had used imported gasoline and that she would gladly provide gasoline if the monks wanted to hold another barbecue.

The repressive nature of the South Vietnamese government became even more clear to Americans when two more monks burned themselves to death, on August 13 and 18. After Ngo Dinh Nhu’s special forces raided Buddhist pagodas on the night of August 21, the new U.S. ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., advised Diem to get rid of the Nhus, Madame Nhu included. Adding to the scandal was the August 22 resignation of her protesting father, Tran Van Chuong, as South Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States. He subsequently lashed out in public against his daughter.

On September 9, Madame Nhu left Saigon for a tour abroad, ostensibly to attend the fifty-second Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now in Serbia). In a pattern that would repeat itself throughout her European and American goodwill tours, Madame Nhu was alternately contrite and infuriatingly outspoken.

In Belgrade on September 11, Madame Nhu angered Americans again by calling President Kennedy an appeaser of the political left. A day later, Madame Nhu showed how deeply wounded she was by the personal criticism leveled at her and how resentful she was of U.S. interference in her country. Asked later if she would visit the United States, she likened herself to a Vietnamese dragonfly who would only stay where she was happy.

It appeared that Madame Nhu was gaining some support in Belgrade. Upon the invitation of U.S. representative Katherine St. George, she had lunch with a group including U.S. senator Kennedy, Edward M. Edward M. Kennedy. In Rome on September 22, however, she made another fateful public relations gaffe. Interviewed by the American Broadcasting Company, she referred to junior U.S. military officers in Vietnam as “little soldiers of fortune” who “don’t know what is going on.” This comment so infuriated Ambassador Lodge that he came to call it an incomprehensible, cruelly, shocking statement in light of the sacrifices, including deaths, made by Americans for South Vietnam. Somewhat chastened, Madame Nhu claimed she did not make the statement, which was caught on tape, and insisted she had been misinterpreted.

Madame Nhu attracted immense media attention when she arrived in New York City on October 7. Traveling from east to west, Madame Nhu and her daughter, Le Thuy, made the cover of the October 11 issue of Life magazine. When news of the November 1-2 coup in Saigon reached her in Los Angeles, she angrily denounced U.S. complicity in the coup. Grieving for her husband, Ngo, and her brother-in-law, Diem, who were killed in the coup, she nevertheless remained in a fighting spirit. She left the United States on November 13 and went into exile in Paris.

Impact

The scandal around the “monk barbecue” appellation by Madame Nhu took off so powerfully in the United States in part because she had picked a phrase coined by an American in a hotel bar in Saigon. She was publicly vilified precisely because she gave public utterance to American words that were taboo for the times. Meant to stop the immolations through ridicule, her words instead fueled the belief that she was a cruel and heartless Asian dictator.

Madame Nhu, considered a public liability in the U.S. effort to win the war in Vietnam, was so disliked that Americans became even more disillusioned with the government of her brother-in-law. Ironically, Madame Nhu was right when she lambasted covert U.S. support for plots in October, 1963, when Ambassador Lodge was doing exactly this.

Madame Nhu’s outspoken, misplaced, and scandalizing words helped bring down Diem’s government in 1963. However, U.S. relief at the coup was short-lived, and the Buddhist self-immolations continued. An imminent Communist Party victory persuaded U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;and Vietnam[Vietnam] Johnson to send U.S. combat troops to Vietnam in March, 1965. A bitter and ultimately lost war ensued, leading to the deaths of fifty-eight thousand Americans in battle. Historians continue to debate whether President Diem could have saved South Vietnam. His downfall, however, aided by the scandal aroused by his sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, was a prelude to Communist Party triumph in 1975. Ngo Dinh Nhu, Madame Buddhism;in Vietnam[Vietnam] Buddhism;and self-immolation[selfimmolation] Vietnam War

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Catton, Philip E. Diem’s Final Failure. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Blames Madame Nhu’s scandalous words for intensifying President Diem’s isolation. Documents Ambassador Lodge’s intense dislike of her and her husband.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colby, William. Lost Victory. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989. Offers a balanced view of Madame Nhu, whom the author knew personally. Considers her infamous “monk barbecue” reference an example of bad taste but argues that the United States should have supported Diem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammer, Ellen J. A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987. Perceptive, balanced account of the scandal, events leading up to it, and events following. Chapter 7 chronicles how Madame Nhu learned of the infamous term from American reporters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d ed. New York: Viking Press, 1997. Standard historical account. Covers Madame Nhu’s contribution to U.S. disenchantment with Diem through her outspoken and scandalous language.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langguth, A. J. Our Vietnam: The War, 1945-1975. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Chapter 5 covers the scandal and its contribution to U.S. disaffection with President Diem’s government. Generally unsympathetic toward Madame Nhu.

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